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Water Filtration: How One UST Student Makes a Difference in the Philippines

Clean water is a luxury 60 percent of the world cannot afford. One University of St. Thomas student, with God by his side and a strong determination, is about to change all of that. Andres Cuellar, a Cameron School of Business BBA/MBA candidate, created a water filtration system with the ability to filter contaminated water and provide clean water for up to three years to underprivileged countries.  

With local materials such as clay, sawdust and plastic, Cuellar created a simple ceramic water filter system that does not require any electricity.

“When we are asked to create a new company we usually think about inventing something new; however, many times we fail to consider improving current products and introducing them into certain markets which would benefit greatly from them,” Cuellar said. “While water filters have been around for a while, the filter that we plan on bringing to our intended market is a simple, durable and affordable system that lasts for three years without the need of replacements or maintenance.”

The water filtration project was initially an assignment for a course in the MBA program at the Cameron School of Business.  Students in the Operations Management course were tasked with creating a business plan to bring a product or service to the emerging markets, specifically to the bottom of the pyramid, Cuellar said.

“Many of the companies we are exposed to aim to the middle or high class consumers,” Cuellar said. “Targeting a product to the bottom of the pyramid is focusing on the poor communities of the world, which is in fact the majority of the population. While it may be a challenging task because of their limited income, a perfect harmony can be achieved if one is able to fulfill a need in an ethical and affordable manner for the consumers.”

Cuellar, along with five other classmates, conducted extensive research for the project and found a professor in South Africa who based his dissertation on improving ceramic filters. The professor had tested the filter in rural communities and allowed the group to use it’s design for the project and future mass production.

After a lot of time and hard work, Cuellar and his group presented the project to the class. The professor invited Eric Yaeger, a friend of the professor who had industry experience, to provide feedback to the groups presenting. Yaeger believed there was a future for the group’s innovative idea and offered coaching money and resources needed to help make the project a reality for the people of the Philippines.

Once the Spring 2013 semester concluded, only three out of the original six group members continued on with the project. However, as time went by, two of the remaining three members had other priorities that limited their ability to continue with the project, Cuellar said.

“I saw that it had a great potential and was determined to stick with it until the end,” Cuellar said. “I was in fact so motivated that I traveled to the Philippines last summer and performed a feasibility analysis to determine if it would be profitable to sell the water filters in the Philippines.”

Cuellar, a native Colombian, has always dreamed of establishing his own business. When he graduated from Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas, he opened his own sail boat rental business in Kemah. Now that he is about to graduate from college, he continues his dream with the establishment of the water filter factory and distribution center in the Philippines.

“At this point I am in the process of creating a legal entity that would enable us to operate as U.S. company in the Philippines.” Cuellar said. “So far we have already bought the land where we are going to establish our factory. The plan is to start the construction of the factory in January for it to be ready in May 2014, so upon my graduation I can travel to the Philippines to oversee the initial production of the filters. Then I intend to stay for at least the rest of the summer as the selling and marketing phases of the project come about.”

In addition to his classes at the CSB, Cuellar has a full-time internship at Total, an oil and gas company in downtown Houston, and leads a Spanish Bible study on campus, which has been going strong for six years. He credits his faith in God for all the opportunities he has received at the University of St. Thomas, which might not have occurred at other institutions.

“I think it all comes down to allowing God to work in your life,” Cuellar said. “For me, it is very important to do my best in what I can control and let God influence the other things out of my reach. I had heard a handful of stories in the newspapers about investors promoting and helping students fund a company. It was something that I thought was very far-fetched. I have to pinch myself at times as I reflect on how far this project has gone. I feel truly blessed.”

Cuellar is only one example of how the Cameron School of Business is educating leaders of faith and character and equipping them with the skills necessary to enter the business world as ethical and socially responsible leaders.

“I used to be a believer that education was just a title, a means of acquiring a piece of paper that you needed in order to embark into a full time job,” Cuellar said. “However, in the past two years I have noticed the value of the education at St. Thomas. Not only has it provided me with a technical background, but also with critical and analytical thinking skills, encouraging me to be innovative, creative and to pursue my own interests.”